There are days when busy working mum Syuibah Abirah Mohamed Tarmizi is just too tired to cook. During this lockdown, Abirah has been working from home and her two children Muhammad Nafis Zahran, 19, and Nur Syadiyah Zahra, 14, have also been at home.
To get them away from their gadgets and give them something fun and useful to do, she has deputised the task of preparing the family’s meals to her children on days when she is particularly busy.
“Sometimes when I am exhausted and don’t really feel like preparing dinner, I pass it on to them. And while I normally ask them to make simple dishes like spaghetti bolognaise, I also allow them to experiment in the kitchen, provided they clean up.
“This intensive cooking that the kids are doing is definitely triggered by the lockdown, because I want them to be occupied with other activities besides their gadgets and also feel a sense of accomplishment when they prepare meals for their parents, ” she says.
To date, her children have made dishes as varied as burgers, spaghetti meatballs, nasi goreng kimchi and lasagna, to name a few. To keep the momentum going, Abirah and her husband continuously provide support and encouragement so their children are motivated to keep up their culinary output.
Across the country, many parents like Abirah are discovering that the lockdown is a great time to really get their kids acquainted with cooking – whether it’s initiating a young child into a wonderful new world where raw ingredients are transformed into cooked meals or expanding the culinary repertoire of teenagers.
So it is little wonder then that the lockdown has quickly become fertile breeding ground for budding young chefs.
Cooking and kids
For stay-at-home mum Odelia Zarsadias, having her two young children – Lea Katrina Thomas, eight, and Ezra Alfred Thomas, five, running afoot at home with no avenue for outside interaction has meant she has had to figure out all sorts of creative ways to keep them occupied.
Because her children are so young, Odelia has opted to get them involved in cooking in small, but meaningful ways.
“My kids are always saying, ‘Mummy, I am sooo bored!’ Then my daughter will say, ‘Let’s bake or cook something.’ So I will think of something easy like cupcakes or French toasts or rainbow pasta (pasta with food colouring added to it) and will get her to do it and my son will come and have a look too.
“So it’s something fun and different for them to do besides playing and fighting with each other, watching TV or doing online classes, ” says Odelia.
For Bhuma Paranjothy, a doctor, cooking has been a great way to entertain her three young daughters – Trinayani Manoharan, nine, Sanskrti Manoharan, seven, and Vidhatri Manoharan, five, and lure them away from the multiple gadgets that otherwise take up most of their days.
“Whatever activities they are doing now typically uses a screen – from watching TV to online classes and video calls. So cooking is something fun they can do, because they are more free now – they are not running off to school or other classes, so they have the time to explore this, ” she says.
During this lockdown, Bhuma has taught both her elder daughters how to make yoghurt from scratch (the family eats yoghurt with all their meals) and is now able to call on them to make it whenever she is running out.
Bhuma also allows her children to try out new recipes (with her supervision), and so they have discovered the “organised chaos” (Bhuma’s words) of making milkshakes, pancakes and waffles.
As her eldest daughter Trinayani is now nine, she has started carving her own culinary path by testing out recipes on her own.
“Recently Trinayani made scones entirely on her own, she looked up a recipe and followed it by herself, ” says Bhuma with pride.
The industrious Bhuma also plants and grows a litany of vegetables in her home garden, including cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, cauliflower, long beans and cabbage. She has now gotten her children involved in planting and watering these vegetables during the lockdown, so that they can actively participate in and observe the growth cycle of each vegetable and how it is absorbed into different meals.
“At least now they know that if they put a seed in a pot of soil and water it, it will become a vegetable or a fruit. My five-year-old now diligently waters the vegetable patch and feels so much pride that she has grown something herself. It also makes for great snacks as the kids now just go to the garden and pluck cucumbers or cherry tomatoes during their breaks from online classes, ” says Bhuma.
For tuition centre owner Pang Siew Ling, the lockdown has given her the time to nurture her 10-year-old son Goh Hao Er’s prodigious interest in cooking.
“You have to be very patient when cooking with children – they might be slow or make a mess. So normally when I am rushing to cook after work, I don’t really have the time to teach him. But now, I have plenty of time, ” says Pang.
Pang and her son normally cook side by side and regularly whip up all sorts of meals together. She also lets him fly solo sometimes – with her supervision – so that he can get creative in the kitchen.
“Sometimes he tells me he wants a particular street food, and we will make it together. And sometimes he will take charge of making fried rice or stir-fried vegetables for our dinner. At other times, he uses his creativity to invent his own food. He will say ‘Mummy, I am going to give you a surprise’ and then he will make something for us.
“Every time he makes something, my husband and I make sure to give him encouraging feedback, even if the food isn’t that nice, ” says Pang, laughing.
For older children, this lockdown has been a time for them to really get busy in the kitchen as many are old enough to cook on their own, with little to no guidance or supervision.
Creative group head Nurul Fathma Munap says that her sporty oldest child Omar Faruqi, 14, no longer is able to play all his favourite sports, so he has turned all his energy towards cooking instead.
“Omar has always been interested in cooking, but during this lockdown, he has been more adventurous and has experimented with recipes. Like recently he made a roast chicken topped with a Thai-style sauce, ” she says.
Nurul says this works out perfectly for her as Omar is quite fussy, so now when he doesn’t like what she cooks, he just makes his own food instead.
“The fact that he can cook his own meals is great because he doesn’t nag me to cook meals that he likes; he just cooks it himself, ” she says, laughing.
Aliza Hilyati Wan Haron is a lawyer with three kids – Aliff Ridzuan Feizal, 16, Arissa Elena Feizal, 11, and Aiman Hakim Feizal, eight. Aliza says the first MCO last year forced her to cook a lot more, since dining out wasn’t possible.
Once she roped in her two older children into the family’s cooking activities, she was surprised to see how interested they were in preparing meals, something that has accelerated even more during this iteration of the lockdown, when her husband has started a detailed schedule so the kids know when it is their turn to cook a family meal.
“My son just likes to cook whatever he likes to eat while my daughter likes to bake. And because my family likes Western dishes, which mostly involves roasting or grilling, it’s easier for the kids to pick it up.
“I had to go to the supermarket a few weeks ago, and when I came home, my daughter had roasted a chicken for dinner. So I definitely think it’s good that the kids are cooking and baking more – the food turns out marvellous and it’s cheap labour too!” she says, laughing.
Aliza also says that aside from giving the children something to do while staying at home, cooking has also been a soothing balm for the fraying tempers and frazzled nerves caused by the pandemic.
“It is stressful because the kids are cooped up at home, so of course sometimes tempers flare and every day, the younger two will fight. So all the cooking and baking is a form of therapy for them, ” she says.
Life skills and life lessons
One of the few good things about the lockdown is that it has given many families the opportunity to spend more time together, which in turn has caused a ripple effect in terms of the number of parents who have used the time to teach their children the wonders of cooking.
So once the threat of the pandemic is well and truly over, it is very likely that a whole new generation of children will have become highly skilled cooks – something that probably never would have happened with such alacrity without the alchemy of the pandemic thrown into the mixture.
Indeed, many of the parents I spoke to admit that their children’s cooking skills now either match or surpass their own.
“Hao Er is already very, very good at chopping, dicing and cutting up ingredients – he’s much better than me honestly, ” says Pang, laughing.
And while there is much to admire in children who can whip up amazing meals, cooking during the lockdown has the added benefit of imparting many lifelong lessons to the younger generation, chief of which is the ability to form some degree of independence.
“There is still a mentality among Asians that men shouldn’t be doing the cooking and that it’s a job for girls. I don’t want my son to learn this. That is why I make my son and my daughter cook together, so it is something that is rooted in both of them from a young age.
“Also learning how to cook will be useful for them when they are older as they don’t have to rely on takeaway meals – they can save money and cook instead, ” says Abirah.
Pang also believes that getting young children involved in cooking can give them a heightened appreciation for the food on the table.
“My child can be a bit choosy about food but when he cooks meals himself, he will try to eat it because he knows the effort that goes into it. So he will promote the meal to everyone around the table and will say things like, ‘Daddy, this is very nice – try it!” says Pang, laughing.
For younger children, cooking has opened their eyes to the origins of ingredients, something that remains a mystery to many small kids.
“I think a lot of small children don’t understand how raw ingredients become meals. Just a few weeks ago, I asked my five-year-old son to clean a fish as part of his cooking lesson.
“He was so disgusted because there was blood, but after that he found it fun looking at the gills and head and tail. I think he learnt something from it, because he realised that this is what he has been eating the whole time, ” says Odelia.
Bhuma says that having to make something like yoghurt from scratch or even reading a recipe can offer many lessons to small children.
“Even simple things like following the instructions in a recipe, you wouldn’t think too much about it, but it is important, because kids learn structural aspects that they can apply when they are writing compositions for instance, so there is a lot of overlap.
“And then when they learn how to make something like yoghurt, they start to connect the dots that milk is from cows and so yoghurt is a dairy product, ” she says.
Ultimately though, perhaps the most profound lesson that parents and children will take away from this experience of cooking during the lockdown is the immeasurable importance of family.
“Now we have more time to really see our kids, especially while cooking together when they talk to us about what’s happening in their lives.
“In my family, everyone now has a role to play in preparing family meals, including my eight-year-old who is in charge of setting the table. And when we are eating, we put all our gadgets away and bond, talking about everything from teenage woes to their crushes! And afterwards, everyone helps clean up together – otherwise they have to face my wrath, ” says Aliza, laughing.
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